August 23, 2019 |

A Shepherded Community

As you know our synagogue is located in a wonderful DC neighborhood called Shepherd Park. The name Shepherd Park derives from Alexander Shepherd, who was the governor of the Territory of DC from 1873-1874. Governor Shepherd and his wife built a great mansion, which they called Bleak House, on the corner of 13th and Geranium. This home was very distinctive to the neighborhood and Governor Shepherd was very accomplished, so the surrounding community was given the name Shepherd Park. Alas, eventually the house itself was demolished in 1916.

We know that there are no coincidences in life. It can’t be a coincidence that our synagogue and many people from our congregation dwell in Shepherd Park, for the word shepherd is a name suffused with biblical meaning.

The importance of a shepherd appears in this week’s Haftorah, which comes from the book of Ezekiel (Yechezkel).
In this Haftorah we are told of a prophecy of Yechezkel that there will come a time in the future that a descendant of David will rule over all of the Jewish people, “veroeh echad yehiyeh lekulam, and there will be one shepherd for my entire people.” This is a reference to the future messiah, the redeemer of our people. He is called a shepherd, or a roeh, in Hebrew.

I want to encourage everyone here to see the name Shepherd Park as a fortuitous name; a call meant to inspire each of us to achieve greatness.

Let us take a closer look at this prophecy of Yechezkel and try to understand what it might mean for all of us on a practical basis as we try to live our lives in service of Hashem.

Before we get into Yechezkel’s prophecy, we will first offer a little background.

Yechezkel was a prophet who lived in the 6th century BCE and shared his prophecies with the exiled people of the Southern Kingdom more than 140 years after the exile of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE.

After King Solomon ruled over the Jewish people the kingdom of Israel had split into two. There was the Northern Kingdom which was home to ten tribes and was dominated by the tribe of Efraim (one of Joseph’s sons). And there was the Southern Kingdom where Judah and Benjamin and Levi lived.

The Northern Kingdom of Efraim was exiled by Sancheirev King of Ashur and was scattered about in 722. Now 140 years later the Southern Kingdom of Judah was also beginning to be exiled in various stages. When Yechezkel gives the prophecy that is recorded in this week’s Haftorah, he was already exiled into Babylon but the Temple had not yet been destroyed. That would happen in 587 BCE and after that catastrophic event many more exiles would follow him to Babylon.

So those were very dire times for the Jewish people. The Northern Kingdom had been destroyed and dispersed more than a century ago. And now Yechezkel was forecasting a terrible fate for the kingdom of Judah.
But in the midst of this gloomy scenario, our Haftorah this week tells us of a hopeful prophecy of Yechezkel. As he watched the people of Judah being exiled, Hashem tells him to walk in front of his nation with two sticks of wood. On one stick of wood he should write: “leyehuda ulevnei yisrael chaveirav, to Judah and his friends from Israel.” And on a second stick he should write: “leyosef etz efraim vekhol beit yisrael vechaveirav, to Joseph a tree of Efraim and to all of Israel his friends.” The Book of Ezekiel tells us that these two sticks of wood will represent the two kingdoms of Israel which have now both been exiled.

Then Hashem tells Ezekiel to hold the sticks close to each other and miraculously Hashem will unite the sticks together. Yechezkel is then instructed to tell his fellow Jews that Hashem will one day unite the Kingdom of Joseph and the Kingdom of Judah into one kingdom. And from that point on they will never be separated and they will never fight again. God will save our nation, redeem us, and purify us. And there will be one roeh, one shepherd, a descendant of David, who will rule over us. God will restore us in our land, rebuild our Temple, and give us a covenant of peace.
This prophecy of Yechezkel is a messianic prophecy of a true and complete redemption for which we are still waiting. We are still waiting for the shepherd who will reign over a united Israel.

According to some biblical commentators, this prophecy is only referring to one redeemer, a mashiach who will come from the tribe of Judah. This person whom we are waiting for is known as Mashiach ben David.

But the 19th century Russian commentator known as Malbim teaches us that according to rabbinic tradition this prophecy of Yechezkel is actually referring to two messiahs, not one. He explains that before the Mashiach ben David will reign over Israel, there will first be Mashiach ben Yosef, a mashiach from the house of Joseph. This Mashiach will gather up the ten lost tribes that were scattered throughout the world and reunite them with the Kingdom of Judah. However, he will be unable to bring about a full redemption and he himself will be defeated in battle. Then the Mashiach ben David will arrive and bring about the full messianic redemption.

Either way, according to Yechezkel the ultimate messiah, i.e. the complete redemption, will come from the house of Judah and not from the house of Joseph.

Today we take this concept as a given, but it wasn’t always clear that this was the case.

There was a point in our history where Judah and Joseph were fighting over who would be the mashiach.
This week’s portion begins with the scene of Judah confronting Joseph in Judah’s attempt to redeem Benjamin. Judah says, “ve-al yichar apekhah beavdekhah, do not be angry with your servant.” Rashi explains that Judah was speaking very harshly to Joseph, dibber alav kashot. And in fact the Midrash says that Judah was speaking so hard to Joseph that metal was flying out of his mouth.

Explains the Midrash that they were fighting over the right to be the ultimate king of Israel, the mashiach of the Jewish people.

So we select this prophecy from Yechezkel in order to tell us that it will be Judah, and not Joseph, who is selected as the ultimate mashiach.

Traditionally two answers are given as to why Judah is chosen over Joseph.

One reason offered is because Judah has sinned, while Joseph avoided sin. Joseph was perfect. When Mrs. Potiphar tried to seduce him, he held his ground and did not commit a sin. So too, his descendant, Joshua, from the tribe of Efraim, was perfect and never committed a sin.

In contrast, Judah sinned with his encounter with Tamar. As the Torah tells us, he went off the path and visited a harlot. So too his descendant David committed a sin via his liaison with Bathsheba. Judah and David sinned and repented. They are the paradigmatic examples of Baalei Teshuvah, people who sin and repent. So explains Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the king needs to understand his people. If he will be someone who has never sinned then he won’t be able to relate to the people. Thus it is Judah, and not Joseph, who is selected as the future king of Israel because he can better relate to the people.

A second answer given is that Judah is the one who says about Benjamin, “Anokhi eervanu, I will take responsibility for him.”

Jacob had been afraid to send Benjamin to Egypt until Judah stepped in and said that he was responsible for his brother. The words “anokhi eervenu” literally mean I will be the guarantee.

It is for this reason that Judah is chosen to be the king and the future mashiach. Remember that Yechezkel calls the mashiach a roeh, a shepherd.

The rabbis explain that a shepherd is chosen as the mashiach because a shepherd feels personal responsibility for each and every member of his flock. So too, it is the messiah’s responsibility as well to feel personal responsibility for each and every member of his flock.

What do these two answers mean for our own lives?

While waiting for the perfect mashiach to arrive and redeem all of us, we too can act like we are all the mashiach. We can act in the spirit of the messiah and therefore encourage his early arrival. By this, I mean, we can turn our community into a true Shepherds’ Park.

There are multiple ways that we can act in the spirit of the messiah. But here are two suggestions that follow in the path of Judah.

First, we can all act as though we are personally responsible for our brothers and sisters. We must act as the guarantee for the rest of our family, the Jewish people.

Here is an example of how we can do that. Last week as Shabbat began we heard the terrible news of the fires raging in Israel. This was a devastating catastrophe. Forty two families lost a soul, and more than 30 families still have a member of their family in the hospital.

More than 17,000 people were evacuated from their homes. As people now return to their homes the damage is immense. Seventy four structures are completely destroyed; 173 are partially destroyed, and 5 million trees are no longer in existence.

This was the worst fire in Israel’s history.

The way of the messiah, the way of the shepherd, is to feel a personal connection to such a tragedy. We should take an action. Get involved. Donate to charity to help those of our brothers who are hurt by this tragedy.
There is a proposal for the synagogues of the DC area to unite and raise money to purchase a fire truck for Israel in response to this tragedy. Our shul should enthusiastically support this effort. (People can send a check to our shul and earmark it to “Washington DC, JNF Fund.” And we will bundle our checks and send them on towards this fire truck.”)
If you want to act like a shepherd you too will support this effort; it means we must get involved personally when we hear of a tragedy that affects a member of our flock.

We have printed up a sheet of paper with the names and biographies of everyone who died in this fire. When we daven Mussaf today, think about these people. Try to connect to each one. That is what being a shepherd means.
And here is a second suggestion of how we can act like the mashiach ben david. In order to act like the messiah, we can reach out to the Ten Lost Tribes and help them return to Israel.

There is a wonderful organization in Israel called Shave Israel which reaches out to “lost Jews”. They connect with people from India, China, Uganda, and other exotic places, who are descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and help these “lost Jews” reunite with their Jewish brethren.

This work is very praiseworthy and deserving of our support. But as shepherds we can also focus on less exotic, but equally important, work. In order to be like the mashiach ben david we need to focus on helping those who are the ten lost tribes amongst us to return to the Jewish people.

Too often, people have fallen and they think that they cannot return to God. They think it is too late. But the message of Mashiach ben David is that the mashiach himself will be a baal teshuvah, just so that he himself can relate to someone who has fallen.

We as a Jewish community tend to forget about the people who are on the fringes—the so-called “have nots” of the world. It is often the case that the so-called “have nots” got themselves into trouble. But so did the mashiach ben david. And he was selected precisely for that reason. Thus, the true path to redemption is to seek out those people so that we can pave the way for the mashiach to arrive.

Because the mashiach ben david will only arrive once all people—the “haves” and the “have-nots” are included in our community. And that will only happen when we directly feel responsible for each and every person of our community.
And when that happens we will be fulfilling our own prophecy of why our community is called Shepherd Park.

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Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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